Struggling McLaren makes Ricciardo gamble

Eight races into what was billed to be its renaissance, the French Grand Prix was McLaren’s worst weekend in an already difficult season.

Knocked out of qualifying in 16th and 18th, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were pootling towards the back of the field and well out of the points eight laps from the finish.

It had been an arduous week for the Woking team. Racing director Eric Boullier had been grilled by the media for the car’s poor performance, including via a UK report that McLaren staff were rallying to have him replaced.

Morale was low, so Alonso’s pit wall brought the Spaniard in for a late tyre change, switching him to the ultrasoft tyres to give him a chance to set the fastest lap of the race, a small consolation after a weekend of woe.

But as the prodigious 36-year-old prepared for maximum attack his rear-left suspension promptly broke. He limped back to his garage and retired from the race.

There could be no better analogy for McLaren’s season.

The troubled McLaren-Honda partnership was dissolved last year, with the team proclaiming Renault engines would allow it to demonstrate that it still has one of the best chassis on the grid, but 2018 has shown up those claims to be exaggerated at best.

Though it sits fifth in the standings thanks to a flurry of points early in the season, as its rivals have come to grips with their new cars McLaren has slipped down the order, so much so that in Canada and France it was the second-slowest machine on the grid. It hasn’t scored in more than a month.

It’s little wonder that after four years of McLaren struggle Alonso, perhaps the best driver of his generation, is tipped to leave Formula One for America’s IndyCar series.

Locked out of the championship race, Alonso’s new target is to win the nebulous motorsport ‘triple crown’, comprising the Formula One Monaco Grand Prix, the World Endurance Championship’s 24 Hours of Le Mans and the IndyCar Indianapolis 500.

Already a two-time Monaco winner and having won the 24 Hours of Le Mans with Toyota earlier in June, only Indianapolis remains.

Fortunately for Alonso, McLaren is considering a 2019 IndyCar entry, which would keep him under the team umbrella if and when the F1 squad returns to competitiveness.

Meanwhile McLaren must prepare for a post-Alonso era. Stoffel Vandoorne, now in his second season, has not impressed in the way his junior record had suggested he would, notwithstanding he drives a difficult car for a team in turmoil alongside the most talented driver in a generation.

Waiting in the wings is 18-year-old Lando Norris, winner of a junior category every season since 2015 and currently leading the Formula Two championship, but partnering him in his rookie season with the still inexperienced Vandoorne would leave McLaren without leadership in the cockpit.

It therefore isn’t surprising that the team has reportedly made a big-money move for Daniel Ricciardo, the out-of-contract Red Bull Racing driver.

The Australian is yet to decide where he will drive in 2019. Mercedes is likely to retain Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, and though rumours suggested he had entered discussions with Ferrari earlier in the season, the Italian team now appears to be leaning towards its junior driver Charles Leclerc.

It seems unlikely that Ricciardo, one of the grid’s foremost talents, would be tempted to join one of the slowest teams on the grid regardless of the cash on offer, but with the so-called silly season to crescendo in July, we won’t have to wait long to find out.